ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Alexander Calder: Master of Balance

How do balance and motion connect art and science?


Key Staff

The lesson can be taught by a classroom or science teacher. It may be helpful to work with an art teacher as well.

Key Skills

Creative Thinking: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Life and Career Skills: Initiative and Self-Direction


Students will learn about the function and form of levers. Students will gain a deeper understanding of the function of levers by viewing the mobiles created by sculptor Alexander Calder. They will build a simplified mobile, experiment with balancing levers and discuss finding equilibrium.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Name the functions and parts of a lever.
  • Understand the difference between the three types of levers.
  • Differentiate between potential and kinetic energy.
  • Study and interpret the mobiles of Alexander Calder.
  • Make connections between science and sculpture.
  • Build a simplified mobile.
  • Balance objects by changing and moving objects on a lever (simplified mobile).

Teaching Approach

Arts Enhanced

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Simulations and Games
  • Discussion
  • Visual Instruction

Assessment Type

Determined by Teacher


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • Projector
  • 1 Computer per Learner
Required Plugins
Technology Notes

Check to ensure that all the Web links are still active prior to teaching the lesson.

Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should either build or purchase a mobile to use for demonstration. Mobiles can be purchased in the infant/toddler section of most stores.

Teachers should be familiar with:

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with simple machines and should have basic knowledge of potential and kinetic energy.

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Laboratory Space
  • Visual Arts Studio


  • Individualized Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


Students will need a flat, clean workspace to create the mobiles. Create a sample mobile.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Introduce a simple machine called a lever. Explain that levers are often used to do work with less effort, such as lifting heavy objects. Draw an image of or visit a see-saw on the playground. Use the see-saw to point out or demonstrate the following vocabulary:

  • Fulcrum: a fixed point
  • Load: weight on one arm of the lever
  • Effort: force applied to move the other arm of the lever
  • Equilibrium: balance when the load and effort are equal

2. Discuss the three types of levers. Project or hand out Lever Worksheet #1 that can be found within the Resource Carousel. Explain the three types of levers. Act out or use props to demonstrate each type if necessary.

3. Have students explore the three types of levers. In pairs, student should continue to read and investigate more about the three types of levers. Then, they should complete Lever Worksheet #2. If possible, bring in objects or photos that correspond to the ones listed on the worksheet. Use the Lever Worksheet #2 Answer Key provided to review Lever Worksheet #2 with the class.

Build Knowledge

1. Explain the relationship between levers and mobiles. Explain that a mobile is a cascade of levers. Each lever is suspended from above and has objects or other levers suspended from its ends.

2. Show the sample mobile you made to the class. Point out how the mobile is made up of a series of levers in equilibrium. Levers and objects hanging from mobiles are placed so that all parts of the mobile are balanced. Point out the fulcrums and arms of the levers.

3. Demonstrate potential and kinetic energy on a mobile. Explain how a mobile has potential energy when it is still. Demonstrate and discuss how potential energy converts to kinetic energy by lightly blowing on the mobile and vice versa when there is no air current.

4. Have students explore the concepts behind building a mobile. Students should create virtual mobiles by arranging and rearranging objects to try and find a balance.

5. Project or display images of the mobiles of Alexander Calder. Show images of his hanging mobiles and standing mobiles. Explain that mobiles are kinetic sculptures—three-dimensional works that include moving elements and a balance of objects. Note how the objects appear to float in space.

6. Discuss how mobiles are a form of art. Elicit from students what they like or dislike about Calder’s work, and why. Ask students what comes to mind when looking at the mobiles. Show Calder’s Constellation, 1943 mobile, but do not reveal the title of the work. Ask students what they think the piece is titled and why. After some discussion, reveal the title, and ask students if they think Calder was effective in communicating a constellation.

7. Have students explore the work of Alexander Calder. Explain to students that Calder’s mobiles were informed and inspired by his knowledge of physics, mathematical concepts, the cosmos, and astronomy. Before Calder enrolled in art school, he had received his mechanical engineering degree, a decision influenced by his fascination with construction and mechanical apparatuses and machines.


Students will practice balancing a simplified mobile. Provide a visual demonstration and verbal instructions for the steps below.

1. Build the arm of the mobile. Students should tie a string around the middle of a ruler (this may need to be taped to the ruler to hold it in place). Tie or tape the loose end of the string to a sturdy place, such as the edge of a desk, so that the ruler is dangling in mid-air.

2. Attach cups to the mobile. Using scissors or a pen, poke a hole in the rim of a paper cup, insert a string through the hole and knot it so that end stays in the hole. Do the same to the other paper cup (using the same size string). Tie the loose ends of the strings so that each cup is hanging from a different end of the ruler.

3. Balance the mobile. Place various amounts of small objects in the cups in an effort to find equilibrium. Encourage students to experiment with the position of the fulcrum, the weight of the loads in the paper cups, and the lengths of the strings.

4. Make observations. Students should complete the Mobiles Worksheet, that can be found within the Resource Carousel, as they experiment and take notes on what happens as they alter factors in their mobiles.


1) Using their notes from the Mobile Worksheet, ask students to share their findings. Discuss the following:

  • What was challenging about finding the proper balance?
  • What did they notice about changing the position of the fulcrum?
  • What did the notice about altering the weight of the loads?
  • What did they notice about changing the lengths of the strings?


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 2: Using knowledge of structures and functions

National Standards in Other Subjects

Math Standard 1: Uses a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process

Math Standard 9: Understands the general nature and uses of mathematics


Science Standard 10: Understands forces and motion

Science Standard 12: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry



Eileen Ewald
Original Writer

Jill Gerlman

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Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



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